Singari Jakesika co-owns a four-acre plot of land along with her husband Bataka. Even a decade ago, the 35-year-old used to concentrate on farming millets. However, since then a transformation crept into the family's farming system. Her husband turned to horticultural crops for profit and the area under millet cultivation reduced.

A resident of Gandili village, Singari belongs to the Dongria Kondh community. For centuries, this particularly vulnerable tribal group has been residing in the sacred Niyamgiri hills which spans Odisha's Kalahandi and Rayagada districts. Of Rayagada's 11 blocks, Kalyansinghpur, Bisamcuttack and Muniguda have the Dongria Kondh population. There are 99 Dongria villages in the district.

The Jakesikas cultivate pineapple, turmeric, ginger, mango and sweet potato on the land received under the Forest Rights Act (FRA), 2006. The first two crops ensure an income of Rs 15,000-20,000 per year on an average for the family.

Widow Tela Wadaka received her land title in 2010 on 1.8 acres. On the right is Ando Wadaka.

But the crop shift has impacted Singari's dietary habits. She now mostly consumes rice distributed at a subsidised rate of Rs 3 per kg under the Antyodaya Anna Yojana and the share of millet consumption has reduced.

"Millets were once cultivated in plenty in dongar plots which are sloping uplands in Niyamgiri. But the decision to turn to horticulture was taken by my husband to earn more money," Singari said.

In Niyamgiri, the Dongria Kondh Development Agency of the Odisha government set up around 1978-79 pushed horticulture to increase the income of the tribal community. Sudarsana Padhy, the agency's project manager who is in charge of the office at Chatikona village of Rayagada in the foothills of Niyamgiri, said in his designated area work centred on livelihood touches 63 villages across Bisamcuttack and Muniguda.

Most land work is carried out by women but land titles mostly are in men's names.

Since 2008, the Dongrias have received 1434 individual forest rights or IFR titles on an area covering 3260 acres. Most titles are in men's names. Even in case of joint titles, the men's names which appear first have been listed in the beneficiary list. Padhy informed that the horticulture initiative has happened in IFR lands.

Horticulture started around 1984 in Niyamgiri and mostly concentrated on the cultivation of pineapples. Gradually, other crops were also introduced. The area under pineapples currently covers a massive 1000 acres. Altogether, 659 farmers harvest 27 lakh pineapples annually.

Ironically, it is the Dongria Kondh women who perform most of the work carried out on lands. But as most individual land titles distributed in 2008-2010 are in men's names, the latter take the decision of which crops to cultivate as borne out in the Jakesikas' case.

The Dongria Kondhs are known for their sartorial choice and the resistance against Vedanta.

This has impacted the choice of crops, particularly the cultivation of millets. The United Nations has declared 2023 as the International Year of Millets to promote these ancient grains. It is women who are in charge of cultivation, harvest and processing of millets.

According to Padmaja Ravula, senior scientist and sociologist at ICRISAT in Hyderabad, in majority of Indian families men decide on the crops after consulting friends and neighbours. Even when they migrate, their wives call up and ask for advice on crop choice. "As there is no empowerment due to the lack of land ownership, women are reduced to the status of workers in their own lands with little or no say."

In Khajuri village under the Kurli gram panchayat where the agency has a greater access, there are 80 Dongria households who are into horticulture. Among these, 63 households received individual land titles under FRA with some beneficiaries getting seven to 10 acres of land. Kurli has 23 villages. Here many cultivate yam, banana, ginger and pineapple.

As the car made its way through the winding roads of the hills, another agency worker Suryanarayan Padhy, who joined in 1985, said as the Dongria community is a primitive tribal group it is entitled to government assistance. Earlier, they used to reside in mud huts but received houses under the Indira Awas Yojana. To help them, the agency supplied saplings of mangoes and jackfruits as well as seeds of turmeric. The crops are grown organically without fertilisers.

Now that Vedanta has been shown the door, the process for claiming community forest resource rights has also started in Niyamgiri where everyone is bound by rule. The Dongrias observe festivals, mostly wear white clothes and depend on the forest for sustenance.

In Khajuri widow Telo Wadaka, who received her land title in 2010 on 1.8 acres, is one of the few women with ownership. She sells her produce of banana, yam and pineapple at the weekly market in Chatikona. Remarking on Niyamgiri she explained that it has sustained the community for years. "If Vedanta mined bauxite here, they would have taken away our hill. And if slipped away from our hands, how would we have survived?"

But though Niyamgiri has survived the ravages of mining, its cropping ecosystem has changed. Bhubaneswar-based Susanta Kumar Dalai, who works with tribal communities on uncultivated forest foods, pointed out that the promotion of horticulture crops is pushing aside millets in the region where almost 50 percent of the area is now under pineapples. "The Dongrias are earning money by mostly selling the crop to traders who throng the weekly market at Chatikona to buy the produce."

But there is a downside too. Bichitra Biswal, the programme manager at non-profit Living farms, pointed out that though the horticulture implementation has helped to an extent, the Dongrias aren't getting a fair price. The organisation works in Dongria villages.

Tribal leader Samburu Kadraka from Kadraguma village said annually he earns Rs 50,000-90,000 from pineapples and turmeric. Once a family has pineapple saplings, these can be cultivated for two to three years.

His wife Palari pointed out that the men decided to grow pineapples. "But if land titles were in women's names, we could have focused on millets more, especially ragi and small millets, as they are nutritious and climate resilient crops.

Millets can be sold too when there is surplus. But that's not the case now as four to five households in Kadraguma rather buy millets," she said. Though the family has a joint title, Samburu Kadraka's name appears first.

Twenty-eight-year-old Wane Jakesika from Gandili admitted that with the reduction of millets there is a shortage of seeds as well in the community. Earlier, they were in plenty.

Again in her case, the family's land title of an acre is in the name of her husband Budu Jakesika. Both pointed out that many women consume rice at night and take ragi pej or porridge in the morning which keeps the body cool in the heat when they do farm work.

Shailaja Fennell, an expert in gender and household dynamics in agriculture, explained that though the production of high value horticultural crops can increase women's economic agency, this cannot be presumed to be inevitable always. "Such an outcome will not occur where there are strong gender hierarchies that push women into subordinate positions."

Globally only 15 percent of agricultural landowners are women while men own the rest. This gives the latter the deciding power. It seems to be the case in Niyamgiri too where men mostly decided to shift to horticulture.

However, the disappearance of heirloom crops like millets changes the gender dynamics at homes and in fields, Fennell, also a university lecturer in development studies at the University of Cambridge, cautioned.

"Knowledge pertaining to the cultivation and cooking of heirloom crops is usually held by women, and mostly older ones in the community. The recipes are shared through oral traditions during festivals. Women also form networks to conserve seeds to ensure the continuity of crops. So, their erasure reduces their status in society," said Fennell.

The size of IFR land plots may also have something to do with the reduction in acreage under millets. Biswal pointed out that the Dongrias in reality received much less than what they originally claimed under FRA. "At that time, there wasn't adequate awareness about the Act. Lands were not properly measured. Even the forest department showed reluctance to hand over lands to beneficiaries," said Biswal. So, whatever lands they received are being used for mainly horticulture.

Fennell cautioned that an existing gap in land ownership makes women marginalised with regards to income generation. Also, in such a scenario while women work for longer hours in fields, they are powerless to make crop choices.

(The story has been covered with the International Women's Media Foundation's Howard G Buffet grant.)